How Educated Should Political Leaders Be?

Do educated leaders make a country prosperous or do prosperous countries have electoral systems in place that ensure that there is a de facto minimum educational requirement? Is there a correlation between the prosperity of a country and the pedigree of its leaders?

The Nigerian constitution, in addition to an age threshold, prescribes secondary school education as the minimum anyone aspiring to executive or legislative office must attain in order to be eligible. It is sometimes argued that the bar should be higher, to improve the ideas that are put forward and the intellectual rigour applied to the discussions that underpin our statehood.

One might assume that we copied this standard from the British and American models that we have adapted over the years, but the American constitution only requires that a person running for the office of President is a natural born citizen who has been resident in the US for at least 14 years. Similarly, in the UK, there is no reference to a minimum educational requirement. A person wishing to stand as an MP simply needs to be over 18 years of age, be a British citizen or citizen of a Commonwealth country or the Republic of Ireland.

However, the last 4 Prime Ministers of the UK have had the following qualifications — Theresa May has a 2nd Class BA degree from Oxford; David Cameron has a 1st Class in Philosophy, Politics & Economics from Oxford; Gordon Brown has a 1st Class degree in History from the University of Edinburgh and went on to get a PhD as well; and Tony Blair had a 2nd Class BA in Arts from Oxford and went on to become a barrister. In the US, Barack Obama went to Columbia and Harvard Law School, George Bush went to Yale and Harvard Business School, Bill Clinton went to Georgetown, Oxford and Yale Law School. Angela Merkel has a PhD in Physical Chemistry. Francois Hollande has a degree in Political Studies and Nicolas Sarkozy has a law degree. Justin Trudeau has 2 bachelor’s degrees. Lee Kuan Yew, who both leading political parties tried to appropriate during the last elections, had double-starred first class honours in law from Cambridge.

A great many African countries, on the other hand, have mostly been ruled by much less educated persons, many of whom have been mutinous men of the military. Civilians have not exactly covered themselves in glory, either. Jacob Zuma, for example, received no formal schooling, and the South African economy has not seen its best days under him. Is there a case then, for advocating that the bar be raised for those who aspire to lead Nigerians and perhaps Africans, generally? Africa is home to some of the world’s poorest and least developed countries, in spite of its abundance of mineral wealth and human capital. It is also home to some of the world’s most enduring conflicts and in spite of the optimism a few years ago, most of Africa isn’t rising.

Perhaps though, the problem is with literacy rates generally and not just the ruling elite? In Nigeria, literacy is at 59.6%, compared to 99% in the UK, 99% in the US, 99% in France and 96.8% in Singapore. Perhaps we still have too many unlettered people to filter up the best for public office? Does the success of Cote D’Ivoire’s recent years under President Ouattara, who has masters and PhD degrees in Economics from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania add further weight to this hypothesis?

And why does education matter anyway, in the grand scheme of things? Well, our constitution suggests that we are a liberal democracy. The preamble to our constitution says its purpose is “…promoting the good government and welfare of all persons in our country, on the principles of freedom, equality and justice…” The constitution separates the powers of government into three arms, also suggestive of our subscription to the underpinning philosophies of the separation of powers and of social contract — social contract, where citizens hand over certain rights and powers to the State in exchange for the protection of the State.

If both the leaders and electorate in a liberal democracy are not aware of the relationship that should exist between each other or have no compunction in turning democratic institutions on their head and substituting developmental infrastructure for a nutritional one, maybe what you end up with is what we have on our hands.